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For Lesser Prairie Chicken, A New Era in Conservation or Raw Deal?

On the Great Plains, environmentalists divided over voluntary conservation program for bird habitat

In 1904, writer and shooting enthusiast Walter Colvin first reported from Kansas on the abundance of lesser prairie chickens he found there. The lesser prairie chicken, or LPC, is a grouse-like bird of the southern plains that thrives in its heat-tolerant grasses and small shrubs. It’s a lekking species, with males gathering on communal drumming grounds, or leks, to flash their bright orange, inflatable neck pouches and dance in order to attract mates.

Colvin wrote that nearly every farmer had hundreds of prairie chickens roosting in their winter grain fields, and in one cane field near the state line, his shooting party startled a flock that, when it rose from the field, made it seem “as though a hole had been rent in the earth.” In another field, he says that his brother saw 15,000 to 20,000 chickens.

a male lesser prairie chickenPhoto courtesy of USDA NRCSThe lesser prairie chicken, a grouse-like bird was once abundant in the southern plains. Today, the bird's population is down to about 29,000.

These numbers are especially startling when you realize that, just over a hundred years later, the total lesser prairie chicken population is only 29,000, and had, as recently as 2013, dropped as low as 17,616, largely due to habitat loss and fragmentation by roads and energy development,

This steep decline in 2013 is one reason the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared the species threatened in 2014. Conservation of these birds faces two major hurdles: private land development and climate change.

That USFWS listing was successfully challenged in court in 2015, leading the agency to withdraw the listing in July of this year (conservation groups submitted a petition to relist the bird in September). At issue was the Rangewide Plan for the lesser prairie chicken, a sweeping conservation agreement that has been hailed by its supporters as ushering in a new era in private land conservation and by its critics as representing a fast track to extinction.

The Rangewide Plan was unprecedented in the scale and scope of its multiagency collaboration. The brainchild of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, or WAFWA, it emerged in 2013 from similar, smaller-scale conservation agreements being tried in New Mexico and elsewhere. David Mehlman, the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program, describes it as well thought out and well-executed: “They put good resources to it, hired the best scientists, and were careful to reach out to …more

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The New Era Demands Cooperation, Not Competition

In Review: Facing the Anthropocene

Ian Angus’ Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System is required reading. Why? Angus weds natural and social processes of planetary import in 2016. To this end, his “essential background and context” advances a vital discussion.

road on a stormy eveningPhoto courtesy of Jeff WallaceTo impress upon readers the magnitude of the systemic environmental crisis, Angus dives into the work of scientists such as atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, who redeployed the word Anthropocene in 2000.

The book, short and sweet at 277 pages, joins a literature of eco-social critiques from radical writers such as Paul Burkett, Brett Clark, Rebecca Clausen, John Bellamy Foster, Naomi Klein, and Stefano B. Longo. Foster’s Foreword sets the stage for Facing the Anthropocene.

In part one of the book, Angus unpacks the science of the Anthropocene, a proposed geological term for a biophysical phenomenon that dates from the dawn of industrial capitalism, emerging out of feudalism. Stage one of this process arrives in the early 1800s. The system, global from the get-go, degrades nature and people; both are transformed into commodities with prices in the marketplace. Capital’s imperative to “grow or die” propels the plunder of the global South, via armed conquest. Angus describes stage two of the Anthropocene as a “Great Acceleration,” which begins in the 1950s, the so-called “golden age” of capitalism. Its main features are rapid growth fueled by polluting energy that relentlessly damages the planet and people through petrochemical use and nuclear weapons tests. Meet “fossil capitalism.”

To impress upon readers the magnitude of the systemic environmental crisis, Angus dives into the work of scientists such as atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, who redeployed the word Anthropocene in 2000. Crutzen and his colleagues’ work on the Anthropocene and its preceding geologic age, the Holocene (the roughly 11,000 years of human civilization) makes for bracing reading. Backed by hard data and evidence, the new research reveals the extent of the recent disruption capitalist society has we have caused to Earth systems. Against that backdrop, we read about the geological history of sudden climate changes. Such occurrences took place in the past without the record amount of carbon in the atmosphere that’s creating climate chaos now.

To be clear, and Angus is on this angle, human impact drives the Anthropocene. However, the blame doesn’t lie equally on all humans, especially not on the 3 billion people of the global South living in abject poverty. As he puts …more

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Civil War Spurs Spike in Solar Energy Use in Yemen

Sanaa residents switch to alternative energy amid power cuts and rising fuel prices

Air pollution has been a serious problem in Yemen's capital of Sanaa, but that’s starting to change. How? Oddly enough, the ongoing war that began in 2015 between the government and a militia loyal to the country’s former president feuding for control of the country helped jumpstart Sanaa’s renewable energy industry.

A view of Sanaa Yemen, right after sunsetPhoto by Louis/FlickrIn the spring of 2015, the national power grid, which was then providing Yemen's captial city of Sanaa with just a few hours of electricity each day — and sometimes just a few hours a week — shut down.

When the so-called Arabic Coalition launched its airstrikes on Sanaa in the spring of 2015, the national power grid, which was then providing the city with just a few hours of electricity each day – and sometimes just a few hours a week – shut down.  People who relied on the public, albeit unreliable, power-grid were left in the dark. Moreover, residents who used private gasoline or diesel-run generators as a supplement for power shortages were no luckier after the price of fuel soared.

As a result, solar energy became a measure of last resort.

Today, almost every neighborhood in the capital city has several solar-installation and related businesses – sometimes outnumbering barbershops and markets. In my neighborhood, for instance, there are more than five solar businesses within 200 meters from my home. Some of them are home-appliance stores that now sell solar units and energy-efficient appliances.

According to Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS), a Yemeni development agency that has been tracking the solar industry, sales of solar panels have increased by over 2,000 percent in the past year.

Even before the war erupted and shut down the power grid, blackouts were a frequent problem in Sanaa, which has an aging electricity grid.

When the price of gasoline and diesel skyrocketed at the outbreak of the war, people recognized that their portable generators would no longer be an affordable supplement or substitute for electricity. Installing a medium-sized solar power system – comprising about two 150-watt panels and a 1,000 to 1,500-watt inverter – costs less than $500 and has actually proved to be less expensive than buying fuel for a generator.

Running a generator for two hours often cost more than a 150-watt solar panel, which costs around $100. (The price of 5 gallons of gasoline spiked to around $100 for several months in the past year, though …more

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The People’s Forest

Co-op forest in Germany champions conservation and the common good

On paper, Remscheid is a large city of 100,000 residents. But it does not seem like one. Surrounded by woods in all directions, its residents take the lush greenery for granted. However, the German forest is a cultivated landscape; for centuries, man has been shaping its look and condition. This is also the case in Remscheid, yet recently, this human impact is playing by new rules: The city boasts Germany’s first citizen-owned forest.

Wald 2.0 co-op forestPhoto by Waldgenossenschaft Remscheid Wald 2.0 co-op members gather in the forest. 

Making decisions as a community rather than leaving them to big investors

The story began at the Remscheid office for forestry, where Markus Wolff serves as municipal forestry director — and he is a busy man. In the life of a forester, great challenges are the rule rather than the exception. According to Wolff, modern foresters are primarily moderators: “They must strike a balance of interests between a prudent use of our valuable resource wood, conservational interests, and recreational purposes,” which means free public access to the forest.

“Yet all of this is tremendously difficult, because the group of owners is extremely fragmented, I can’t even reach the individual stakeholders,” he adds. In fact, there are about two million private forest owners in Germany. Individuals often own only tiny parcels. Many of the forest owners are unable to take care of their property; they live far away or don’t have the right skills.

Often, the most pertinent course of action seems to be selling the forests, which are mostly inheritances. Since investors know this, too, they scout heavily forested communities for potential sellers who are looking to make a quick buck. Some years ago, Markus Wolff observed such an operation in a neighboring community: Businessmen descended on the town, paying forest owners handsome cash sums. In some cases, the trees were felled and hauled away the very next day. Residents complained, asking where the forest went. Wolff did not like any of this. He realized that a future-proof forest required a whole new approach.

Markus Wolff called this principle ‘Wald 2.0’, i.e. ‘Forest 2.0’. It is the product of the forest co-op Remscheid, which he and a few supporters founded in 2013. There are two ways to become a member. Forest owners can contribute their properties and thus become shareholders. Those who do not own any forest can also subscribe to a share, starting at 500 Euros. The co-op uses …more

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Genetically Unique Yellowstone Bison Deserve Endangered Species Status

Montana should stop killing wild bison that venture beyond park boundaries

A number of environmental organizations, Western Watersheds Project, The Buffalo Field Campaign, and Friends of Animals, have petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Yellowstone bison under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Some may be baffled why any bison deserve listing under the ESA when there are at least 500,000 bison found in North America.

 two bison at YellowstonePhoto by Jitze CouperusThe Yellowstone Park sub-population of bison has been subjected to severe slaughter and culling as part of an effort to prevent transmission of brucellosis, a bacterial infection, to cattle.

Here’s why. The Yellowstone Park sub-population of bison has been subjected to severe slaughter and culling as part of an effort to prevent transmission of brucellosis, a bacterial infection that can sometimes cause cattle to abort their first calf post-infection. There is a lead wall (made of bullets) that attempts to bottle bison up in Yellowstone Park when they migrate to lower elevations outside of the park in search of food during harsh winters.

In addition to the direct killing of animals by Montana Department of Livestock, park rangers, and hunters, bison have also been captured and slaughtered.

In recent years, more than a thousand bison have been killed near the park borders as the bison attempted to migrate out of the park.  In 1996-1997, culling of Yellowstone bison removed 57 percent of the entire northern subpopulation and 20 percent of the central subpopulation.

Genetically Unique

The proposed listing would use a feature of the ESA called a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) designation. DPS permits the FWS to protect unique populations of a species that may have special conservation significance.

In the case of the Yellowstone park bison, its conservation value is both significant and unique. The bison in Yellowstone Park are free of cattle genes. Most other bison herds have some degree of hybridization with domestic livestock.

Furthermore, Yellowstone’s bison are the only known bison population that has been continuously wild (though for a few years they were fed hay in the Lamar Valley to build up their numbers). This is particularly important as Bozeman wildlife biologist Jim Bailey argues in his book American Plains Bison—Rewilding an Icon, Yellowstone’s bison are genetically unique.

There are only four sources of bison without cattle genes, the Henry Mountains of Utah (the bison here were originally transplanted from Yellowstone), a private herd in New Mexico and in Canada. However, the largest cattle-gene-free bison herd is in Yellowstone.

Despite this …more

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A Nigerian Superhighway Project Threatens a Critical Rainforest and Its People

Indigenous Ekuri Fight to Protect Ancestral Forests Amid Push for Development

The road to the Ekuri forest community in southern Nigeria is calm and serene, with lush green leaves, blooming flowers and giant trees. This calm betrays no signs of an embattled people and their endangered ancestral forests, farmlands and wildlife.

Forest road in NigeriaPhoto courtesy of Rettet den Regenwald e.V. (Rainforest Rescue) The superhighway would cut through several protected forests reserves and abut the western boundary of the Cross River National Park.

Amidst protests, bulldozers backed by armed, rampaging soldiers stormed one of Africa's largest surviving rainforests last spring and cut down trees — all in pursuit of the newly elected government's agenda for rapid development. Within a space of a few hours, large expanses of forests and green areas, which were natural habitat for certain wildlife species along the Okokor village, had been torched and reduced to bare earth and red mud.

This episode marks the beginning of a fierce and protracted crisis with political undertones, diplomatic intrigues and international interest.

It started last year in Nigeria’s Cross River State, which boasts more than 50 percent of the country’s rainforest, when Governor Ben Ayade unveiled his ambitious infrastructure plan for the region: a $3.5 billion, 260-kilometer, six-lane so-called Superhighway that would link a yet-to-be-built Bakassi deep-sea port in Calabar farther down south to Benue state up north. The highway would cut through several protected forests reserves and abut the western boundary of the Cross River National Park.

To drum up support for the plan, the governor invited the newly sworn-in President Muhammadu Buhari to attend a groundbreaking ceremony for his proposed roadway. According to the state, this highway would become the first in Nigeria with first class satellite antenna and fiber optic cable to deliver unlimited internet access. It would also bring with it 24-hour ambulance service, motels and gas stations.

Ayade’s critics have accused him of stifling dissent over the roadway, failing to consult with the Ekuri and not undertaking  the required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIM) before commencing a project of this magnitude. The environmental assessment is now completed, but the environmental ministry in Nigeria’s capital Abuja has said that it falls short of international standards. The project is currently on halt.

Protests against the Superhighway have rocked the typically calm and tourism-friendly Cross River State, as the  people of Old Ekuri and Young Ekuri villages (that are collectively known as the Ekuri Community), led by their village heads, have marched to register their grievances. "This is a nonviolent struggle…in the …more

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How “Cheap Talk” Helped Environmentalists and Water Managers Find Common Ground

Book Excerpt: Water is for Fighting Over and Other Myths about Water in the West

Sid Wilson, one of Arizona’s senior water managers, thought Jennifer Pitt was some sort of crazy tree hugger. Pitt, who worked on Colorado River issues for the Environmental Defense Fund, imagined Wilson as something akin to Genghis Khan. But until they set out on a boat trip together down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in the spring of 2004, the two had never actually met. The first night, Wilson, standing on a sandbar, kicked off the relationship by explaining why he didn’t trust environmentalists.

Colorado River Mile 53 from the The Anasazi GranaryPhoto by Andrew LangdalThere is something about nights in the depths of the Grand Canyon — the quiet water, the sliver of star-speckled sky between upraised cliffs, a beer shared on sandbars overlooking the river — that changes people.

It’s remarkable what a river trip will do. There is something about nights in the depths of the Grand Canyon — the quiet water, the sliver of star-speckled sky between upraised cliffs, a beer shared on sandbars overlooking the river — that changes people. When Pitt and Wilson emerged from the canyon, the politics of Colorado River water management had changed with them. A fragile bond had been forged, one that would strengthen during the coming years into collaboration.

“Maybe it was that we were wearing shorts and drinking beer, or maybe it was the magic of the river itself,” Pitt later explained.

The river trip, organized by one of the federal government’s senior water managers, brought together federal officials, state water managers, and Pitt (the token environmentalist). There also was an air of theater about it. In the midst of growing drought, the feds invited five of the most prominent journalists covering water in the western United States. The goal was to get the basin’s key decision makers together in one place to talk about solutions to their shared problems. Bennett Raley, the Bush administration assistant interior secretary who organized the expedition, recognized that the issues were deep and that remedies handed down by the federal government were unlikely to work. Best to get the players onto the river, organize daily seminars, run some rapids, ply them with alcohol, and see what happened. “They will come up with a much more durable solution than we could by imposing one on them,” Raley said.

The trip on the Colorado River came at a pivotal moment. Lake Mead, full as recently as 1998, was dropping fast. In the …more

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